Released: 28th April 2017
Directed By: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis
Reviewed By: Van Connor
With the recent release of The Handmaiden having heralded the “return of the erotic drama”, this corset-busting romp from relatively unknown director William Oldroyd sees the revival head more towards the terrain of TV’s Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet than Park Chan-Wook’s more artful venture. That’s not to belittle a solid effort from screenwriter Alice Birch – who crafts a scintillating tale from Nikolai Leskov’s source novel – but to call Lady MacBeth an amped-up hyper-sexual answer to the Catherine Cookson adaptations of the nineties wouldn’t be too far off the mark. It knows it though, and in knowing well and truly what it is as a feature, it’s free to swing for the melodramatic eroticised fences it so proudly has within its sights, fences it knocks down whilst making a star of young lead Florence Pugh in the process.
Pugh plays our (decidedly non-Shakespearean) lead Katherine, who – having been forced into a marriage of convenience – wiles away her days as the begrudging mistress of her prudish husband’s household. It’s from said household that she soon discovers – and begins a frenetically sexual affair with – worker Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). As the affair begins to introduce Katherine to the woman lying in wait within, it’s not long before husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) returns, and the gap between the subordinate Katherine was and the headstrong confident woman she’s become soon begins to close.
Despite solid direction by Oldroyd, and some genuinely sharp scripting by Birch, Lady MacBeth hangs almost entirely on the performance of Pugh. And it’s a performance that could so easily have been misjudged by an actress of less impressive calibre. Pugh is more than up to the job, shaping a startlingly timely character in this period setting and allowing her would-be machinations to unfurl in a manner that seems at once both quintessentially Cooksonesque, yet simultaneously brilliantly edgy in the eyes of a contemporary audience. It’s a star-making turn by an actress (barely) overshadowed in 2014’s The Falling, yet clearly waiting for that moment to put her stamp on something truly insightful. This is that moment, and – make no mistake – said stamp’s there for all to see.
Not that Jarvis is particularly weak, with enough rugged charm to make his audience ask “Christian, who?” and the acting chops to ensure his sexualised romantic lead is captivating enough to justify his eventual (yet necessary) narrative shortcomings, there’s something to this young actor worth keeping an eye on. Point of fact, Oldroyd peppers his cast with such performers, – Christopher Fairbank providing a joyously menacing antagonist, and Naomi Ackie a mortifying would-be accomplice – that the sublime quality of his craftsmanship would be so easy to overlook were it not for cinematographer Ari Wegner’s captivating visuals and the enthralling production design of Jacqueline Abrahams. A win on the cinematic front, but – perhaps more impressively – a victory for the crowd long bored by Fifty Shades and ITV’s somewhat neutered attempts at erotica, Lady Macbeth’s one lady you should make all the time in the world for.
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